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What Students Learn

Mauri Ditzler
3/1/2010

I found myself eating alone in Scotland Yard last week. I hated eating alone nearly 40 years ago when I first entered college and my feelings haven’t changed with passing time. Actually, it is only on campus that I hate eating alone. Sometimes, after a busy day, hiding away in my kitchen or in a corner booth of a small town diner can be enjoyable and relaxing. But a college campus is a place for discussing ideas and debating issues large and small. When I am alone in a busy cafeteria, I wonder whether there is universal agreement that I have nothing important to contribute to those discussions.

So I was delighted when a first-year student with sandwich and drink asked if he could join me. Our conversation went to the usual topics. What courses was he taking? Was he enjoying the semester? Was I enjoying the semester? What was he learning? His report was positive and upbeat. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, as the spring in his step and the smile on his face had signaled a confident student. Soon we were talking about how the second semester of college is so much different than the first and how the third and fourth will be different yet.

At Monmouth College we try hard to smooth the transition to college life. But in spite of our best efforts, there are bumps in the road. Some students wonder if they will ever satisfy the expectations of their writing professor. Others struggle with what it means to analyze, rather than memorize. Perhaps the biggest challenge is time management. Understanding the difference between studying and time in front of a book is always difficult for new students. As certain as we are that these and other issues will arise, we are equally certain that after a semester or sometimes after two or three semesters, our students will respond.

Just as suddenly as he arrived, my lunch and conversation companion looked at his watch and sprinted away for a one o’clock class. As I reflected on his report of learning to focus while studying, I was reminded of a common misconception. Too often we see students as getting smarter because of the collective impact of the facts, theories and ideas they are accumulating with each additional course. When we do that we forget that with each semester our students are becoming better learners. The content of their courses is important, but it is the nature of the challenges inherent to those courses that imparts the ultimate value.

Every college does (or at least should) place students in courses on the basis of their content preparation. Does a student know enough mathematics to be in Calculus III or should she be in Calculus I or Pre-Calculus? Has a young man studied enough Spanish to begin his college work at the intermediate or the introductory level? These are questions that can be determined by examination; we are pretty good at making those determinations and when we occasionally make a mistake we move the student around as necessary.

But professors must deal with the fact that in a class where all students have similar knowledge of the background material some are just beginning to develop sophisticated study skills and others are much farther down that path. At the very best colleges – and I believe Monmouth is well on its way to becoming one of the very best – each course becomes a community where sophisticated learners benefit by mentoring less mature learners who in turn are inspired as they see what they will become. The very best professors – and we have many of them – understand that sometimes the same answer from two different students needs to be praised in one case and challenged in another. At Monmouth, personal attention is one of our hallmarks. Often, we imagine personalized attention coming outside of the classroom in the form of one-on-one tutoring. But equally important is the instruction that occurs when a professor discerns the intellectual maturity of each student and personalizes the in-class experience to the benefit of everyone.